Friday, May 28, 2021

Sketching the Pandemic Year 2020 week 17

Sketching the Pandemic Year 2020 April 19-24 week 17

Phragmipedium Petite Queillette  from Smithsonian gardens graces this page of the Smithsonian Engagement Calendar 2020.  The write up about the orchid reads : “.. is a hybrid of two parent species. One parent ‘Phragmipedium besseae’ is found only in the forests of Ecuador and Columbia, growing on the rocks and steep banks along fast growing streams. This rare critically endangered orchid is just one of more than 7000 specimens included in the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection.” 

We have just one orchid plant -  cultivated variety of Phalaenopsis species - a gift from a friend. She gave it me about five years ago and every year it has bloomed again and again. The blooms last for months and the plant graces my coffee table all that time.  Rest of the year it’s in our sunroom enjoying the balmy hot conditions - pretty close to the tropical weather of its natural habitat.  When I received the plant it was February and in full bloom - but since then the timing of blooms has been creeping up a bit later every year. After the very first one blossom appears,  others come in quick succession.  The timing was just right for this page.  Once it starts blooming I sketch or photograph often capturing it in different lights.  

Orchids are works of art by nature - beautiful and ingenious in their form and function. The flowers are shrouded  in symbolism in every part of the world.  I learned that the word Orchid comes from the Greek orkhis meaning ‘testicles’! The everyday flavoring Vanilla comes from an Orchid too. There are more than 28,000 naturally occurring species in the family Orchidaeceae in the world - in every continent except for Antarctica! And  there are thousands of hybrids !!! But many species are also lost or critically endangered due to climate change, loss of habitat and indiscriminate acquisition by orchids hunters and ‘collectors’. There is an intriguing article ‘Orchid Fever’ in the Newyorker magazine by Susan Orlean - which later came to be a book ‘The Orchid Thief’.   I read in an article the Indian Newspaper ‘The Hindu’  that : “ the Rig Veda and the Atharva Veda (1500-800BC) two orchids Rasma - Vanda tessallata and Sanjeevani - Flickingeria macrai have been mentioned as medicinally important. Subsequently, Sushruta Samhita /by Sushruta (Indian Hypocrates) and Charaka Samhita by Charaka listed about a dozen orchid plants used by Ayurveda.” The article continued with a list of orchids that are still used to treat many health issues in Ayurveda, and  traditional tribal Medicines world over. With thousands of species will we ever know all the marvels of Orchids ? 

Orchid dance  watercolor by Meera Rao 


Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Sketching the Pandemic Year 2020 Week 16

Sketching the Pandemic Year 2020 week 16  April 12-18 

Every year the Osprey pair return like clockwork  sometime in late March from wintering elsewhere. As always,  in no time at all they renovate their nest built on the ‘no wake’ pole at the bend in the river. The male searches and finds the sticks and the female does the necessary work of making the nest just right. There is no time to waste -  the nest has to be ready for the eggs and then the chicks! The bare branch of the tree on the riverbank is the male’s favorite spot to sit. He brings the fish he catches to the branch to eat. Sometimes he is perched there grooming.  The female usually sat in the nest - especially once she laid the eggs. A pair of fish crow appear in the nearby branch as soon as the Osprey lands with the fish. Mostly the crow were content to swoop down to the ground below and devour the bits that fall off.  Once there are chicks in the nest for the crows to tend, they get aggressive but Ospreys with parental duties also don’t tolerate the crows anywhere close by!

        Osprey Resting watercolor by Meera Rao

Sheltering at home meant that I was privy to all that drama. I had the time to notice how often they came to sit on that branch and recognize their calls. I made an effort to tell the difference between male and female Ospreys. I researched about their habits and life.  The binoculars were always on the table by the window and I was happy to spend hours watching the majestic birds flying, swooping to catch a fish, tearing into it with its sharp claws and beak to satisfy its hunger or feed the chicks. 

The photo of John Singer Sargent’s beautiful portrait of Betty Wertheimer in the Smithsonian Engagement Calendar 2020, like all his other paintings showcases his magnificent talent. There is only a small sketch - a study of dead birds attributed to him among hundreds of his works.  I am sure though, had he turned his attention to Ospreys, there would have been wonderful portraits of birds for us to admire. 


Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Sketching the Pandemic Year 2020 week 15

Sketching the Pandemic Year in Smithsonian Engagement Calendar 2020
Week 15 April 5-11

The photograph on the Smithsonian Engagement Calendar 2020 for the week of April 5-11 was Nicario Jimenez Quispe’s The Hat Maker Workshop’.  Quispe used wood, boiled potato, natural pigments, plaster and lamb’s wool to make this piece.  He is a Peruvian American retalbo maker. The caption explains that  his traditional alter pieces are made as “small wooden boxes filled with figures, animals, and other other objects that tell a story. The hats shown here are representations of those used every day in the peasant communities of the Andes, where they are made of lamb’s wool and dyed with natural pigments and sold in markets and fairs.”  

By April 2020 making masks had taken over the country and I joined in the frenzy too! For days I watched YouTube videos checking out the various kinds of masks that I could sew.  And then I selected appropriate  fabric remnants from my stash, gathered the elastic, and got to work. When the old sewing machine broke I called it quits on making the masks. I  bought handmade masks from crafters to do my part in supporting them. A friend shared two masks she made. I parceled out a few in a bowl by the front door, extras in my purse in ziplock bags, a couple in the car, and more in my coat jackets along with tiny bottles of sanitizers!! I was not going to be caught without a mask ! And for how long would this go on - no one knew for sure. 

Mask making  watercolor and ink by Meera Rao 

Monday, May 24, 2021

Sketching the Pandemic Year 2020 week 14

Sketching the Pandemic Year 2020 week 14 March 29-April 4 2020 

It would indeed be cool to drive a three wheeled sleek Pete Wozena Concept car 1961 pictured in the Smithsonian Engagement Calendar 2020f (week 14-  March 29-April 4). But if it’s a car that zips you around speeding by everything, it won’t do to go check out the cherry blossoms in full glory in spring! That calls for a leisurely drive ohh-ahhing the beautiful delicate pink blossoms that line the road on a particular part of town.  It also mandates a couple of back and forth cruising as there is no place to park along that road and walk under the trees.  The outing was a much needed respite while sheltering at home especially since by then we all were aware of the uncertainty looming ahead. 

Cherry Blossoms watercolor by Meera Rao 


Saturday, May 22, 2021

Sketching the Pandemic Year 2020 Week 13

Sketching the Pandemic Year 2020 Week 13 March 22-28 

Sheltering at home gave us ample time to really observe nature by just looking out the window any time of the day or night !!! Every morning there were many pelicans and cormorants flying and swimming around to catch their meal. Pelicans glide low over the water or cruise high and then dive bomb into the water for fish. Cormorants ease their head into the water and dive to catch their pray and emerge elsewhere from the water. After a dive the cormorants sit on the dock or the poles in the water and spread their wings to dry in the sunlight. Often I see cormorants and Pelicans sharing the space on the dock sunning or resting peacefully.  This one time I saw these two birds among a dozen others standing next to each other - it looked to me like there were exchanging notes about where to find the best catch ! But during my research I discovered that they usually do co-exist peacefully most probably because they don’t fish at the same depths. 

Cormorants are an ancient species whose ancestors lived during the time as dinosaurs and the oldest Pelican fossils are from around 30million years ago. Once again my sketches go well with the photo for that week in the Smithsonian Engagement Calendar 2020 :’Tyrannosaurus rex - Hell Creek Formation, McCone county Montanaat the National Museum of Natural History -.  And it was not a surprise that looking at  my  photos and sketches that week, this subject jumped out making it an easy decision. 

Pelican and Cormorant watercolor and ink by Meera Rao 


Friday, May 21, 2021

Sketching the Pandemic Year 2020 Week 12

Sketching the Pandemic Year 2020 week 12 

The silver lining during the pandemic started very early :) I have spent hours playing, reading and just goofing around with my grandkids- keeping them occupied while their parents worked from home. I am eternally thankful to the inventors and technology for giving me this time with my grandchildren living miles and one even across an ocean/a continent /a few time zones away!!! 

The glow in the painting ‘Evening glow at Mono Lake, n.d’ by Chiura Obata watercolor on paper  is not that different from the glow I feel after these long distance play sessions from my grandchildren:) 

FaceTime Playtime March 15-21 


Thursday, May 20, 2021

Sketching the Pandemic Year 2020 week 11

Sketching the Pandemic Year week 11 March 8-14

We had made it back home safe and healthy.  But the world over the magnitude of the health crisis was just starting to show.  Having dodged the virus while traveling, our instinct then was to  stay home just to be on the safe side. That meant observing nature in our back yard more closely and there is always something to watch, wonder and learn.  The finches, cardinals and sparrows were happily feasting on the crepe myrtle seed pods. We have a table and chairs under that tree where we often lunch or sip tea. I saw these seed pods that fell from the tree - may be dropped by the birds on to the table - with the long  dramatic shadows. Researching I found out that crepe myrtles are not native to USA but were introduced from Asia in 1700s. And it is an acquired taste for these birds :) 

The seed pods sketches were perfect against the coconut that is from the National Postal Museum- a coconut that was mailed from Hawaii by Raymond Boulder to his wife in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1944 during WWll ! He carved the address on the coconut shell and affixed the postage to a piece of cardboard that was attached to the coconut by a wire !! According to an article in Smithsonian June 2019, apparently there is such a thing as mailing a coconut - at the Hoolehua post office in Hawaii, ‘The coconuts are free, all customers have to do is payoff shipping and the USPS will mail their decorated coconuts to addresses around the world!’  Right now the question is when will we be able to check that out ? 

Crepe myrtle seed pods in the sun. Sepia Ink and watercolor by Meera Rao 


Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Sketching the Pandemic Year 2020: Week 10

Sketching the Pandemic Year 2020 Week 10 March  1-7

On one of our last days during the London trip, we stumbled upon Ben Wilson, the chewing gum man. He was sitting on the sidewalk and painting on discarded chewing gum  in Muswell Hill neighborhood.  I was excited to meet him as I had read about his ‘street art’  He says he is “taking thoughtless action and trying to transform them into something positive - it’s a form of recycling.’  People commission him to paint discarded gums and that morning he was painting gum in honor of Lola, Arielle, Hugo and Oliver :)  Coming home and studying the photos I had taken, I saw that one of his tiny paintings said “world within worlds /one world”  I laughed out loud at the serendipity of pairing for this week in the Smithsonian Engagement Calendar 2020 - ‘Cassiopeia A digital photograph made by processing x-rays detected by Chandra X-ray Observatory’! The caption reads : “Cassiopeia A is the debris field of a exploded star known as supernova remnant, located about11,000 light years from Earth. This exquisitely detailed image from the space- based Chandra x-ray Observatory shows the location of different elements in the remnant including silicon (red), sulfur (yellow), calcium (green), and iron (purple) 

Check here for a short video on Ben Wilson and @benwisonchewinggumman on Instagram to see his works of gum art.

World within worlds - one world  March 1-7 2020 watercolor pen and ink by Meera Rao


Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Sketching the Pandemic Year 2020 week 9

Sketching the Pandemic year 2020  February 23-29 week 9

Something about the colorful cables running on the long red brick wall, the green door,  the train tracks and a warning on the platform to ‘mind the gap’ grabbed my attention at the Paddington station, London.  We were on our way back from a short trip to Bath. Little did we know then how lucky we were to not have encountered the virus !!! And that it was to be the last of a holiday trip for quite sometime to come! I have photos of old fashioned pharmacy shop windows in Bath with handwritten signs that said ‘Face masks hand gels/wipes Forehead thermometers in stock’. I puzzled over the signs as I captured them with my camera. Those words were not yet in our everyday vocabulary! There were even a few tourists wearing masks in Bath.  But we were oblivious/ignorant of the pandemic in the making! 

The Lamina wallpaper in the Smithsonian Engagement 2020 is designed and produced by Assemblage, Witter, Arkansas and is at the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum. It is made by hand applied marble dust, mica plaster,  gold leaf and waterborne resin. The museum website describes it as : “Lamina is dark and  dramatic with horizontal lines with bold metallic stripes, creating a nice contrast between the dark indigo and metal leaf. Sporadic bands of mica and resin add a subtle sheen.’  I feel the industrial looking wall is a work of art itself - a tribute to ingenuity of man and science and has paired well with the photo on the opposite page! 

Mind the Gap  February 23-29 watercolor and ink by Meera Rao 


Monday, May 17, 2021

Sketching the Pandemic Year 2020 Week 8

Sketching the Pandemic year 2020 Week 8

So what do the Apollo Lunar Module LM-2 and an Indian Autoriksha have in common ? They both are adept in dodging craters ;)  I just made that up for this post ! 

I sketched the autoriksha because of the hanging Lord Hanuman motif.  I saw them in many rickshas  and thought the drivers must feel the need for blessings of Lord Hanuman who could leap over mountains and oceans to help them navigate the pot holes and other road obstacles ! The night time caretaker for my Dad drives an autoriksha. I ran down one early morning before he left to check if he too had an Hanuman hanging in his vehicle and he did ! The sketch of humble autoriksha against photo of the technically advanced moon lander in the Smithsonian Engagement Calendar 2020 is why now there is a joke about it ;). 

February 16-22, 2020 sketch by Meera Rao 


Saturday, May 15, 2021

Sketching the Pandemic Year 2020 week 7

Week 7 February 9-15 2020 Caterpillar by Meera Rao 

I saw many caterpillars on a partially cut down tree in the yard. But by late afternoon they all had disappeared ! Don’t know if they ate their way to cocooning or were eaten by hungry birds looking for tasty nutritious morsels for their chicks ! There is a philosophical appreciation  for caterpillars in almost all cultures for the unique way they gracefully and patiently metamorphose and change life forms.  In Native American tradition caterpillar is believed to bring luck in love! So once again I smiled at how the photo of the corsage made of sea shells in the Smithsonian Engagement Calendar 2020 paired nicely with the caterpillar.  

But reading further and diving deeper, I realized that the corsage was one of the ‘Art of Gaman’ created by Japanese Americans in Internment camps  during World War ll. ‘Gaman’ is a Japanese word from Zen Buddhism meaning enduring the unbearable with dignity and patience. I discovered that beautiful objects, furniture, jewelry, toys etc  were made during the those difficult years from found objects, scrap materials - a testament to their resourcefulness, perseverance in hard times, their humanity and  spirituality.  Delphine Hirasuna, author and curator of  the exhibit ‘Art of Gaman’ says : “Most of these artworks were done by people without any professional training. When the powers that be take everything away from you, the only thing left is your own creative expression, what you have in your mind. And so Art became in many ways essential to mental survival in the camps.”  Little did I know back in February 2020 that the whole world would soon need  gaman, the creative art of coping, in the year of covid! 

Caterpillar watercolor by Meera Rao 

Friday, May 14, 2021

Sketching the Pandemic Year 2020 week 6

Week 6  Feb 2-8 2020

Is it Tailor bird? Or is it Chestnut tailed starling? Even after spending hours observing, I never really could identify the beautiful bird that darted in and out of the lush bottle brush tree with bright red blooms right outside the balcony in Bengaluru, India. Hanging upside down it enjoyed the snacks it found in the flower. But then “You must not know too much or be too precisely scientific about birds and trees and flowers and watercraft; a certain free-margin, or even vagueness- ignorance, credulity - helps your enjoyment of these things” said Walt Whitman whose portrait by Naul Ojeda graces the page in the Smithsonian Engagement Calendar for 2020. The description says: ‘Ojeda’s watercolor portrait, a testament to Whitman’s appreciation of nature and was likely inspired by Federico Garcia’s 1929 poem Ode to Walt Whitman.’

Snack Time watercolor by Meera Rao 


Thursday, May 13, 2021

Sketching the Pandemic Year 2020 week 5

Week 5 Jan 26-Feb 1 2020. Brahminy kite by Meera Rao

We enjoyed our short stay in London. In late January 2020 there were hardly any obvious signs of covid 19 there.  We did see a few travelers  with masks at Heathrow international on our way to India but it didn’t mean much to us. Once in Bengaluru, we stayed close to home spending much of our time with family. Fighting jet lag by not succumbing to afternoon naps, I sat most afternoons in the balcony reading, watching, studying the birds busily flying around the trees and bushes in the yard and beyond. The Indian raptor Brahminy kite (Haliastur indus) circling and soaring high above but occasionally landing on the high branches of the coconut tree fascinated me. Considered a contemporary representation of Garuda, the sacred bird of Lord Vishnu, Brahminy Kite symbolizes bravery, swift action, precision, elegance and efficiency. The Northern Inuaina (Arapaho) man’s ceremonial shirt pictured for the week in the calendar,   identified the wearer as  high ranking in his society recognized for his bravery, generosity, wisdom and fortitude. I am glad I  sketched the kite for this week in the Smithsonian Engagement calendar 2020.  


Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Sketching the Pandemic Year 2020 week 4

Week 4 January 19-25, 2020 

Life was flowing along as planned and this week was busy with preparations for our trip to London and then on to India. During our stop in London, the first outing was with our grandchild to his favorite Hyde Park.  At the park, when this mute swan as tall as me walked over and stood there checking me out, I was both nervous and excited - but was mostly making sure my grandchild was safe! This was the first time I had seen a swan up close. It was mostly the stuff of ballets and folk stories until then!  And when I finished sketching the swan for the week and spread the pages out to take a photograph I was struck once again how unconsciously I had paired the sketch for the week. The swan is considered to symbolize beauty, grace and fierce loyalty as reflected in the painting of Michelle Obama by Amy Sherald in the Smithsonian Engagement calendar. 

Mute Swan at Hyde Park, London. watercolor Color pencils by Meera Rao


Friday, May 7, 2021

Sketching the Pandemic Year 2020 week 3

Bat watercolor, ink and color pencils by Meera Rao

At the  monthly meetings of the Peninsula Chapter of Virginia Master Naturalists,  the second hour is devoted to continuing education.  In January 2020 the guest speaker introduced us to Bats.  She even brought Bats for the show and tell.  Looking back, even though Covid-19 whose origins were suspected to have ‘jumped’ from bats to humans was raging in China and the first cases had already shown up in the US - we were not aware of what lay ahead. When I chose to sketch a bat for that week,  I also did not realize it was juxtapositioned against ‘Sheridan’s cavalry condition powder’ that promised to prevent and cure cattle plague, anthrax, and hog cholera...! What irony !! 

Week 3 2020 Smithsonian Engagement calendar and my sketch 


Thursday, May 6, 2021

Sketching the Pandemic year 2020. Week 1 and 2

Sketch of Rumors of War sculpture by Meera Rao in brush pen. 

In March of 2021 when it was a year since sheltering at home, I finally hit upon an use for the Smithsonian 2020 engagement calendar that had stayed empty. When I stumbled upon it earlier in January during a cleaning spree, it felt environmentally and morally irresponsible to discard  a book unopened and unused.  I decided to look back through my notes and camera roll and sketch something for each week to record the passing of the (First?)Year of Covid. I have other sketches and paintings that I had done throughout the year but this was going to be different- even though I was not exactly sure how ! I was excited to have my sketches live side by side with the glossy beautiful art from the Smithsonian collection! 

Week 2 Jan 5-11, 2020

I started with week 2.  When I tested watercolor on a page in the very back of the book, paper felt like Yupo slick but not as sturdy, color pencils just slid off, pen and ink showed thru. I should have tried acrylics - but I did not have anything decent and did not want to invest in one.  I was going to wing it:) Ultimately, I used black, sepia or color pens, color pencils and watercolors - ironing to flatten out buckled pages. I shied away from fine or detailed work and kept experimenting throughout!! I now have a ‘sketchbook journal’ that sort of documents my unforgettable pandemic year 2020. Looking back now I discovered that I spent much of the year watching nature in our backyard, FaceTiming grand kids and connecting with rest of the world on and off via Zoom!  

The year started with lots of promise - a trip to DC to see grandkids. On Jan 8 2020, we stopped in Richmond on our way to DC to see the recently installed sculpture  ‘Rumors of War’ by Kahinde Wiley. It is a beautiful and powerful sculpture rivaling the Monument Ave offerings.  Little did I know then that the other Monument Avenue sculptures of the confederate notables would be down in a few months !! 

Week 1 thru Jan 4 2020

Winter Camellia by Meera Rao in watercolor and ink 

Every year the Camillia tree in the backyard puts on a brilliant display of red flowers giving us a ‘Christmas tree’ decorated by nature ! On Jan 1 2020 the tree was especially full with blooms. I had taken a photo of a bloom to include in the new year’s greetings I sent via social media, texts and email :) 

Cover of the Smithsonian Engagement Calendar 2020 


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